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Pistols for Two: Michael Bérubé vs. Chris Lehmann

Michael Bérubé Writes:

Flipping through a copy of The Baffler Number Nine, expecting to be entertained as usual, what do I come across but a hyperbolic, smug, snotty little essay about how all professors are wealthy, self-serving careerists who wouldn’t know a class struggle if it bit them on their amply padded asses. The essay opens by citing the he-man left’s favorite gadfly, Russell Jacoby, as if Jacoby were some kind of working-class hero instead of a wannabe who’s made a career out of mocking academics (after having failed to land an academic job himself) and advocating a return to class politics (which he himself never manages to practice). The essay goes on in a Jacobyan vein for some pages, making plenty of good solid points about the corporate academy that the academic left has already made many times over, and sure enough, making them at the academic left’s expense. And by the time I get to the essay’s hilarious description of me as “one of the most enthusiastic epigones of critspeak as revolutionary praxis,” I figure the author just has to be ol’ Jacko himself: No other writer on the planet has been so delusional as to try to pass off this crap as a characterization of me and my work. (Luxury cruises will be awarded to the first person who can find a single sentence I have ever written that justifies either the “critspeak” part or the “revolutionary praxis” part. Readers who can find a single phrase will win fabulous discounts on all my books.)

You can imagine my surprise when I got back to the title page and realized that the author was one Chris Lehmann—not Jacoby, it turns out, but an amazing simulation. Well, at least Jacoby treats me with hauteur and disdain largely because he’s so pissed that I get invited to write for general-readership lefty journals more often than he does; what the hell, I wonder, can be Lehmann’s excuse?

My curiosity now piqued, I read further that my account of the Yale graduate student strike of 1995–96 is “wildly misguided,” full of “blindspots” that testify to the “notorious academic misapprehension of ‘real world’ relations of power,” and jeez, I begin to wonder whether Lehmann was the gangly kid whose dog I hit repeatedly with my car a few months ago. At one point, Lehmann grudgingly credits me with having criticized Yale’s faculty for breaking the graduate student union’s (GESO) grade strike; but then, apparently working on the belief that he is much smarter than any of us mortals, he goes on to point out that I am really, really dumb: “[Bérubé] can never bring himself to supply the simplest explanation for the intransigence of Yale’s trustees and administration in the GESO campaign: No private school in America has recognized a graduate student union.”

My argument is that graduate students are also teachers, and that all teachers should have the right to form teacher’s unions and bargain collectively.

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s butt. A private school, you say? Damn, I wish I’d thought of that. Now, why didn’t this occur to me? Because, for one thing, I wasn’t answering so simple a question as “why did Yale’s trustees and administration oppose GESO?” I was asking why Yale’s faculty overwhelmingly opposed GESO, and why they took such extraordinary (and illegal) measures to do so even though they had no financial stake in the outcome of the dispute. Lehmann insists that the class conflict is the only explanation; but this is not only too simplistic to count as an analysis of university labor disputes, it also (more crucially) makes nonsense of Lehmann’s own conclusion that faculty should organize with other workers of their class. OK, that’s one thing. For another thing, Yale’s status as a private university does not exempt it from federal antidiscrimination laws, and should not exempt it from federal labor law either; in hauling out the “private university” defense, Lehmann has unwittingly toed the line drawn by the Yale Corporation, instead of the much saner NLRB ruling of November 1996 (which Lehmann cites but seems not to have read), or the AAUP resolution of December 1995, both of which grant to all graduate students the right to organize in order to bargain collectively with universities.

Lehmann claims that my essay attributes the Yale crisis to “sui generis management styles” and Yale’s “generalized institutional culture of ‘elitism,’” and therefore faults me (and others ostensibly like me) for substituting “culture” for “class,” for failing to see any structural relation between Yale and other schools, for contributing to the demise of the American intellectual left, for padding my C.V., and who knows, maybe for depleting the earth’s ozone layer to boot. (In reality, by the bye, I did not treat Yale as a unique phenomenon. My essay actually attributed the bullheadedness of Yale faculty to the fact “that they cannot see any structural relation between Yale and the vast legions of lesser American schools”; I opened the essay by talking about unionization at the University of Kansas, and closed it by criticizing a recent MLA president’s plan to create “postdocs” that would establish a permanent second-tier class of underemployed Ph.D.’s nationwide. In the course of linking the Yale crisis to broader national conditions and the “adjunctification” of university teaching, I did, however, note that Yale has its own specific history of union-busting and unfair labor practices—a history that Chris Lehmann would do well to study.) But allow me, for now, to dodge Lehmann’s numerous petty insults, his grandstanding, his off-key paraphrases of my essay. Let’s cut to the chase. What is to be done? My argument is that graduate students are also teachers, and that all teachers should have the right to form teacher’s unions and bargain collectively. I’ve made that case not only in the pages of Social Text (Lehmann snidely insinuates that my colleagues and I wrote these essays merely to advance our careers) but on campuses across the country, including my own, where my administration is engaged in a costly and foolish struggle to deny recognition to our own graduate student union. In this context, organizing around “class” oppression, as Lehmann suggests, is ludicrous: You’ll only pit distinguished chairs against teaching assistants and replicate the Yale scenario nationwide. The answer, instead, lies in good old-fashioned trade unionism. And if you don’t trust me on this one, on the grounds that I’m an epigone of any number of rank stupidities, you can take it from Jon Wiener, whose essay in the most recent issue of Dissent says the same thing.

On the importance of trade unionism and alliance-building Lehmann and I are pretty much in agreement, which is one reason his general snottiness is so annoying. But there are two more problems with Lehmann’s analysis, and taken together, they’re fatal. One has to do with the academy, the other with labor. Let’s take them in that order.

Problem number one has to do with enrollments in the humanities and the social significance of the academic left. Lehmann insists time and again that the academic left is irrelevant not only to contemporary labor struggles but to everything under the sun, including the socially critical functions of universities. He purchases this point first by citing Jacoby to the effect that one-quarter of all undergraduate degrees go to business majors whereas only 12,000 go to foreign language majors and 7,000 to students in philosophy and religion; and second, by insisting that there has been “an arresting sea change in the last generation of college students: Liberal-arts majors now comprise just 30 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded nationwide, down from 70 percent in 1970.” The problem with this argument is that, like Jacoby, Lehmann tends to run out and play before he’s finished his homework. There has indeed been a notable decline in liberal arts degrees since 1970, but the decline occurred almost entirely between the years of 1970 and 1976. Comparing degrees awarded in 1970 with those awarded in 1995 suggests a slow, gradual decline, whereas in fact what happened was more complicated: a plunge in the seventies, a trough from 1976–1986, then a dramatic rebound in the late eighties and early nineties, with the peak of the rebound occurring somewhere around 1993–95. Likewise, comparing current business majors with philosophy, religion, or foreign language B.A.’s, as Jacoby does, is tendentious and misleading—like comparing galaxies to solar systems in order to prove that the latter are insignificant. In 1995, for instance, although business management awarded 234,323 degrees, the behavioral and social sciences as a whole awarded 200,237, and the humanities as a whole awarded 192,317. These figures come from the National Center for Education Statistics, which also reports that B.A.’s in English accounted for 7.12 percent of all degrees awarded in 1970, 7.21 percent in 1972, 5.77 percent in 1974, and 4.54 percent in 1976. In 1986 and 1988, by contrast, English B.A.’s comprised 3.5 and 3.89 percent of all degrees; in 1994 and 1995, 4.61 and 4.47 percent.

Why does this barrage of statistics matter to the argument? Because when Andrew Ross attributes the recent downsizing of humanities departments to the rightward shift in national politics, Lehmann archly accuses Ross of “preening” and “prattling,” and claims that humanists are being struck by the budget ax simply because they “preside over departments with declining enrollments.” Chris, my boy, this is poppycock. In these United States, the humanities and social sciences awarded 29.5 percent of the nation’s 935,140 undergraduate degrees in 1980–81, and 33.9 percent of 1,158,567 undergraduate degrees in 1994–95—an increase in both relative and absolute terms. More telling still: In the past ten years, during which the “downsizing” of humanities departments has accelerated precipitously (and the number of part-time faculty increased from 36 percent to over 45 percent of the profession), bachelor’s degrees in history rose 73 percent, in religion and philosophy 31 percent, and in English 71 percent. So the next time someone tries to tell you that downsizing is tied to a drop in enrollment figures, you can either cite these handy statistics or use the even handier one-word rebuttal, “bullshit.” Meanwhile, at the University of Illinois, which is a perfectly representative institution in this respect, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences does 43 percent of the undergraduate teaching but receives only 28 percent of the budget allocations. At no point in recent years, in fact, have funding levels for the humanities matched the student demand for courses in the liberal arts.

What all this means is that if Lehmann really wants to talk about why programs in the humanities are being “right-sized” and eliminated, he’s going to have to think about cultural politics (wipe that smirk off your face, young man), and he’s going to have to stay in his room a bit longer and finish that nasty homework of his. In the liberal arts, our enrollments have held steady or increased since Gerald Ford left the White House. And as for that precipitous dip in 1970–76: yes indeed, it was caused by the rise of professional schools—and partly (as Francis Oakley pointed out some years ago) by the exodus of undergraduate women from the humanities into pre-law and pre-med programs. Hardly a development worth lamenting, unless you’re Pat Robertson.

You smart fellows want to write about labor and intellectuals? Then drop the poses and get serious.

So much for Lehmann’s understanding of the academy. As for labor, let me be brief: When Lehmann proclaims that “if the academy is serious about embracing the agenda of labor, it should do so on labor’s terms,” I have to wonder how much the lad knows about our labor history. The UAW, for instance, is not a very good model for teachers’ unions to follow; neither, for that matter, was the AFT under the neocon leadership of Albert Shanker. The UAW has been a subsidiary of management for decades; the AFT was on the wrong side of the community control movement in New York in 1968 and fought against progressive reforms for the rest of Shanker’s reign (which is why, in an old labor house like the one I grew up in, “to shanker” is an irregular verb meaning “to kill progressive reforms”). Had Lehmann been paying attention during the Columbia teach-in, he would have heard that labor and intellectuals split in the sixties over the Vietnam War. Is Lehmann now endorsing labor’s support of that war? And surely I needn’t belabor the history of corruption in the pre-Carey Teamsters or the sorry AFL-CIO leadership of the pre-Sweeney days of Lane Kirkland. The interesting thing about the recent attempt at a rapprochement between labor and intellectuals, then, is precisely that both sides have a lot of sorry history to answer for—and a lot to learn.

Lehmann closes his screed by wagging his finger at us nutty professors and solemnly cautioning us that “solidarity begins at home.” Yeah, well, Casey Jones couldn’ta said it better. It’s clear to someone like me, who was walking picket lines at St. John’s University as soon as he could walk, that Lehmann didn’t bring to the table a decent understanding of academic labor disputes, or academe, or labor history, or labor unions—just a penchant for sneering at leftist professors, and a smattering of second-hand dogmatic wisdom. Lehmann’s article has its decent moments, but even those are marred by his opportunistic tendency to blame people for not writing about events (like the crises at Adelphi or Arizona International University) before they occurred, and his truly bizarre insistence that the Social Text contributors should have “shift[ed] their gaze from the elite precincts of a place like Yale”—even though many of the contributors were Yale graduate students. Since The Baffler is pretty good at skewering ersatz “alternative” culture, let me put it this way: The day a Chris Lehmann gets to posture as more savvy and class-conscious than people like Rick Wolff and Robin D.G. Kelley (fellow contributors to Social Text) is the day Scott Weiland gets to proclaim himself the godfather of punk. You smart fellows want to write about labor and intellectuals? Then drop the poses and get serious. I know The Baffler can do better—and often enough, it actually does.

Chris Lehmann replies:

What was I thinking? Here I had criticized Michael Bérubé for his tendency to personalize the labor conflict at Yale, only to learn that I’m a snotty, gangly kid understudy of a he-man lefty academic wannabe.

I also learn that I maliciously bend statistics to serve the evil designs of Albert Shanker and Pat Robertson, and that I quite possibly supported the Vietnam War, to boot. Gangly but blood-thirsty—a veritable Tony Perkins of left cultural criticism. Imagine the unutterable shame of my parents.

But through the ungainly invective, Bérubé is trying to topple a couple of key points in my Baffler essay, so permit me to restrain my snotty urges—down, spiteful pen, down!—and address a few of his more substantive complaints. First, the painstaking numbers game: I am being assailed for a 1970 to 1995 comparison; yet my claim that humanities enrollments are declining is trumped by a comparison of 1980 and 1994 figures. Thus we learn that, depending on your points of departure and arrival, numbers are fungible things. Still, the remarkable reversal I mentioned remains, as far as I can see, a remarkable reversal—and I did say that it took place over a generation. Nor is it especially unfeminist to note that an enormous influx of professional and preprofessional students, regardless of their gender, continues to transform the university into a full-on bazaar of business culture. (Indeed, it’s a rather striking oversimplification to depict women—the largest demographic grouping on the planet—as a univocal progressive interest group, but we’ll save that point for another letter.)

“Michael, my boy,” I am tempted to write, “you are blowing so much empirical smoke here,” but I dunno, that’d be kind of, well, snide, wouldn’t it?

There’s also the small matter of me (citing my dread svengali, Russell Jacoby) including a comparison of the rather anemic number of degrees granted in undergrad philosophy, religion and foreign language departments with the bulging figures in business schools. Yet to play off behavioral and social sciences against business enrollments, as Bérubé proposes, creates new galaxies of confusion. We know, for example, that sociology—once a proud discipline of astringent social criticism—is being banished from many campuses altogether. Likewise, the term “behavioral and social sciences” is being used to cover ever broader swaths of business-minded specialties such as industrial psychology, public relations, and corporate anthropology. And, as I noted in my essay, more traditional social science disciplines such as political science and economics are being rapidly overtaken by “rational choice,” market-based models of inquiry, with predictable implications for the university’s culture of would-be dissent. (Meanwhile, Bérubé’s complaint about the unfitness of the philosophy and religion comparison becomes especially droll when we read on to see the new upsurge in humanities enrollments that he cites is caused in part by increases in those very same, suddenly no longer quite so unrepresentative, disciplines of philosophy and religion.)

As for those increases: Bérubé insists upon beginning his analysis at the point where the numbers bottomed out—the grim academic season of 1980–81—thus yielding the “increase in both relative and absolute terms” in the awarding of humanities and social science degrees that, he claims, has taken place since. Here I must admit to a certain exegetical glee: After his solemn chiding that the long-term decline in liberal-arts degrees is so much more “complicated” than my numbers had indicated, Bérubé has seen fit to ignore that in both 1993–94 and 1994–95 (the most recent years tabulated by the Department of Education), humanities and social science programs registered small but significant across-the-board declines—in English, social sciences and history, foreign languages and literature, and of course, the long-suffering fields of philosophy and religion. “Michael, my boy,” I am tempted to write, “you are blowing so much empirical smoke here,” but I dunno, that’d be kind of, well, snide, wouldn’t it?

But enough bean-counting. The reason such numbers matter, as Bérubé rightly notes, is that many left professors love to portray themselves as an embattled cultural vanguard, nobly fending off all manner of surly right-wing autos-da-fé. Andrew Ross is pleased to call this condition “an acute political siege”—and it is from the frontline tents of the culture wars that today’s left professors issue their counsel to the benighted workers yearning to be free, on campus and off.

With this broad area of agreement in mind, let’s move on to Bérubé’s other objections. To begin with his most plausible complaint: It’s true that I made no mention of Bérubé’s efforts to explain the hostility of Yale faculty to the GESO organizing drive, since, well, such efforts seem rather superfluous. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with labor conflicts can surmise rather quickly that one reason Yale professors resist efforts to improve the sweated conditions of graduate and adjunct instruction is that they directly benefit from such conditions. Oh, cripes, there I go again with that oversimplified class analysis—it’s almost as bad as Tourette’s.

As for the private university question, Bérubé must have been so blinded by visions of a cackling Russell Jacoby that he overlooked this sentence in my piece: “Bérubé is aware of the gap between the successful organizing drives at public universities and the bitterly stalemated ones at Yale.” I then noted he largely attributed the obduracy of the struggle to the “elitist” attitudes of Yale faculty and administration. I never endorsed Yale’s private-university “defense” of its union-busting; I merely said that it was a more compelling explanation of the university’s hard-line stand than the cultural posture of elitism. One might just as reasonably argue that historians of the Old South “toe the line” of the Southern planters’ ideological justification of slavery.

As for urging that organizing on campuses proceed on the labor movement’s own terms, I cited two specific examples of union activism in the realm of culture and education. I no more suggested that union-minded academics sign on with Albert Shanker’s AFT or George Meany’s Vietnam War than I suggested they endorse the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. This sort of generation-baiting—the notion that the New Left and its latter-day apologists basically own the copyright to political dissent—was one of the things I meant to criticize in the essay, and Bérubé’s thundering rhetorical efforts to tar me with retrograde sixties-era political positions are, it seems to me, a particularly shameful instance of it.

Just out of curiosity, though: What was the “right side” in the 1968 United Federation of Teachers fracas over community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville? Would that be the side that appointed the breathtakingly unqualified Herman Ferguson—then under indictment (and later convicted) for a plot to assassinate NAACP leader Roy Wilkins—to the community control district’s governing board? The side that brought on the Congress of Racial Equality’s self-styled “terrorist” (and later Tawana Brawley thug) Sonny Carson to organize paramilitary task forces, sporting helmets and bandoliers of bullets, to prevent union teachers returning to their jobs—after the Board of Education and the UFT had already brokered a deal to protect both the teachers’ contract and the community-control experiment? The side that threatened to send each returning teacher home in a pine box? The side that reneged on a long series of public agreements so as to force a “confrontation” with a “sick society” practicing “educational genocide”? It’s true that Albert Shanker became an unsightly neocon during his long tenure at the AFT, but to assert that his principal political failing was being on “the wrong side” of that particular struggle strikes me as a tad, well, simplistic.

But it’s more interesting to note what Bérubé doesn’t attack in my essay. I quite explicitly suggested that, in view of the academy’s growing strategy of casualizing its pedagogical workforce, sympathetic professors could embark on a serious rethinking of the institution of tenure and reexamine the corporate-structured system of university governance. Curiously, though, Bérubé urges us away from those by-ways—part of that “too simplistic,” hairy-chested class analysis, I guess—and cautions against pitting “distinguished chairs against their teaching assistants.” I confess this is something I just don’t get: We have an institution—university tenure—that breeds a notoriously solidarity-resistant brand of occupational privilege, and out of deference to that institution’s prerogatives, we craft a trade unionist strategy. Of course, it could be that the beneficiaries of such privilege are strenuously trying to pass their interests off under a cloud of vanguardist mystification…. Damn, there I go again. Where does one get counseling for this sort of thing?

One little-acknowledged piece of collateral damage from the culture wars is the way that their tendentiousness pretty much flattens most considerations of simple intellectual honesty. But even so, Bérubé’s considerably less-than-close reading of my essay is rather stunning. He claims my piece opens by citing Russell Jacoby, when there is, in fact, a long opening epigraph by Thorstein Veblen; Jacoby doesn’t put in his sinister appearance until the bottom of the third page. (But then, by his own admission, Bérubé appears to have read the whole thing back-to-front; perhaps this explains much of his outrage over my prose style.) I’m also excoriated for my “opportunistic tendency” to reprove the Social Text crowd for not writing on the Adelphi and Arizona International University cases “before they occurred.” Well, the Adelphi crisis began in the fall of 1995, when the first reports of Adelphi President Peter Diamandopoulos’s college-procured luxury condo became public. And the founding of the tenure- and union-free Arizona International University was announced in February 1996—after six years of widely reported public planning. The Social Text issue I criticized appeared in December 1996. In seeking to upend my argument that the academic vision of business and labor conditions at American universities tends to be as foreshortened as that famed Saul Steinberg cartoon of The New Yorker’s view of the world, Bérubé unwittingly proves my point.

Likewise, another of my piece’s central points—that we see in academic labor discourse a persistent effort to transmute matters of class into matters of culture—receives, alas, abundant confirmation in Bérubé’s hands. In fact, we see in Bérubé’s various overheated asides a cultural reductionism that is indistinguishable from the person of Bérubé himself. I honestly don’t know why it should matter that Bérubé appeared on picket lines as a toddler or that he grew up in a Shanker-hating “old labor house.” In a profession that routinely decries the evils of essentialism, this display of quasi-genetic lefty street cred is an aporia indeed. (Though come to think of it, as a grade-schooler at a Seventies antiwar rally I was once struck on the head by a falling cardboard box. Does that count?)

What seems to make Bérubé most apoplectic is that I’m nowhere to be found on the academic radar.

But gaze across Bérubé’s discursive landscape, and you see all manner of personalities dotting the horizon as sort of stand-up punching dolls, marking the contested turf of the culture wars. Hence the ritual plunging of me into the ranks of the Albert Shankers and the Pat Robertsons—and the frankly bizarre web of guilt-by-association he perceives emanating from the Venice study of Russell Jacoby (whose work, let the record show, I do indeed admire). In Bérubé’s world, as in the discursive labors of so many acolytes of the New Left, all permissible debate flows from personal authenticity—and critique of any sort is suborned automatically to personal-cum-professional intrigue. (On the other hand, I’m grateful I got off comparatively lightly; in a recent Nation review of the culture wars tome History on Trial, Bérubé darkly hints that Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is a crypto-Aryan apologist for critiquing the history standards promulgated by an NEH task force in 1994.)

This rampant personalization of political argument intersects nicely with Bérubé’s pronounced obsession with professional prestige. What seems to make Bérubé most apoplectic—enough so that he actually addresses me as “boy,” a smirking juvenile afflicted with all manner of attention deficits—is that I’m nowhere to be found on the academic radar. Hell, I’m not even a Russell Jacoby, that tortured, semi-employed soul who lies awake counting the “general-interest lefty journals” that invite Bérubé’s contributions. Next to Robin D.G. Kelly and Rick Wolff, I’m a mere poser and posturer. This feverish reckoning of positions by force of personal association is, indeed, the currency of argument itself: We are instructed to accept Bérubé’s interpretations because another left academic—Jon Wiener in Dissent—says pretty much the same thing.

But where, oh where, would the personalization of political conflict be without the more legible and carnivalesque markers of the fashion system? In a self-dramatizing flourish almost too status-happy to be believed, there is Bérubé’s endorsement of high fashion in the pursuit of academic renown, as reported in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Bérubé wowed last winter’s MLA confab in Toronto, it seems, with what the Chronicle calls “an electric blue suit of 100 percent polyester”—and the smashing figure he cut with it is displayed, quite winsomely, in a four-color Chronicle photo. “It’s an amazing color, and it never loses its crease!” this son of the picket line enthuses, after decrying the academy’s low-end fashion standards: “Anything with some cut or color draws derision—and admiration—because the sartorial requirements of the business are so low.” You know what? I think Bérubé may be onto something with this institutional culture of elitism, after all.

All right, all right—I know I’m being snide, in a manner entirely unbecoming of my station. As Bérubé says, there is much we agree on, and I don’t want to go on reciting the long-familiar follies of the culture wars. I do, however, want to decamp from the cold Northeast for a luxury cruise. So, without further ado, here’s a passage from the introduction to Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, which Bérubé cowrote with Janet Lyons. It has critspeak, revolutionary praxis, and unwieldy metaphor to burn (the emphasis is also in the original):

The curious thing about both political and aesthetic avant-gardes, though, is that they both subscribe to the ideology of alternative production: avant-garde work is subversive, is oppositional, insofar as it circulates outside the system of exploitation and domination, either because its point of origin is radically opposed to the system (for example, in the anarcho-syndicalist workers’ collective) or because it works “underground,” burrowing its corrosive way into the system from an external location that will be internal before the system knows what’s hit it.

I’m thinking, I dunno, Antigua. And I’ll be packing my electric blue beach robe.